What’s in a word? A tweet by the prime minister’s advisor sends Nepalis to the dictionaryThe word “chhaunda”, many believed, was used to indicate ‘an agent of a witch.’
Early Sunday morning, Nepalis woke up to a curiously-worded tweet by Bishnu Rimal, the prime minister’s chief advisor. The tweet was in Nepali, and included a word that sent many people scrambling for the authoritative Nepali dictionary published by the Nepal Academy.
Translated into English, the tweet reads:
It is said that, the chhaundas
Do not shuffle by themselves
They’re released by somebody,
They give us pain! Those chhaundas
Are they shuffling by themselves or
Were they released by somebody?
The dictionary lists four different meanings for ‘chhaunda,’ a noun:
1) child; infant; offspring; 2) A son; 3) A slave; 4) As per folk belief, a trained cat employed by a woman who is adept at witchcraft to spy on her victims.
The word ‘chhaunda’ is a common term in the Tarai, used to refer to children. But in the hills, because of its infrequency of use, many read the word as employed in its more insidious meaning—as the agents of a ‘witch’.
Vijay Kant Karna, a political analyst, tweeted that the word is commonly employed in Maithili, Bhojpuri and Tharu languages, but asked Rimal to clarify what he meant.
“In Maithili, the word means a son or a daughter. But because it’s being used less frequently these days, the word is like using ‘aaimai’ to mean women in Nepali,” Karna told the Post. “If anything, this kind of rash usage of words signifies the confusion and frustration in Oli and his aides. Used in Nepali, the word definitely gives a derogatory sense, not in any way appropriate to be used by a person of such authority.”
Many readers were quick to remark whether the usage of the word by Rimal signalled the deterioration of political decorum in the KP Sharma Oli administration.
“The tweet of the advisor depicts Baluwatar’s ‘frame of mind’. No one in Baluwatar, including Sharma Oli, has realised that they are not being able to do good work. They have only perceived that all the criticism laid against them is laden with negative intent,” tweeted Sanjeev Pokharel, a political analyst. “There’s nothing surprising about the advisor’s choice of metaphor. It’s because Oli liked his character, skills and vision that he was appointed the special advisor. If Oli gets appointed for another five years in office, it’s certain he will remain the special advisor.”
Rimal’s tweet sent off a firestorm of replies, many of whom questioned whether it befitted a man in a public position to employ such questionable language.
“Tsk Tsk! The words used by the government’s chief advisor!” wrote Tara Nath Dahal, executive chief of the Freedom Forum, mimicking Rimal’s poetic enjambment.
Others wondered whether the tweet implied a belief in the supernatural.
“Prime Minister’s chief political advisor has said the government is haunted by chhaundas. Isn’t the fact that a member of communist party doubts the government is haunted by satanic spirit a manifestation of a conservative mind!?” wrote Mohan Mainali, a journalist.
Earlier this week, Oli had spoken at length about former prime minister Baburam Bhattarai, mocking his PhD via a folk tale comparing the politician to a frog. Even then, many had commented on Oli’s statement as unfitting for someone in his position.
In 2016, even Prime Minister KP Oli himself had used the word to refer to “spies” employed by neighbouring countries to haunt Nepal. “It is wrong to play with chhaundas every day and night to hurt neighbours,” Oli said three years ago.
The ongoing hullabaloo on the internet is reminiscent of a few years ago when Oli had referred to protests in the Tarai against the new constitution as a “makhe sanglo”. Many in the Tarai had taken serious offense at what they considered a demeaning characterisation of the protests as a “chain of flies”, while others clarified that Oli had used the phrase to refer to a quagmire that one cannot get out of.
The Post attempted to reach Rimal by telephone but he was unavailable. In response to a text message asking what he meant by his tweet, he replied, “Nothing.”